Recently, Tawwaba Bloch, who helped with the research to find Murshida Rabia Martin, the first American Sufi murida, sent me word that she and two others (Cheraga Saraswati Burke and PamAllah Dussault) followed our directions and made a pilgrimage to the burial site. Together they took flowers from the garden at Khankah SAM in San Francisco to place in the crypt vases and Cheraga Saraswati Burke conducted a ritual of remembrance. Hopefully many more American Sufis will begin to find their way there, just as they have.
On February 9th, my sweet friend, Pir Dr. Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajajé, was received into the loving arms of the true Friend. For much of our own friendship, we were mostly 'pen-pals.' But those who still write to each other know how significant a relationship that can be.
Ibrahim Baba, as I and many others called him, first wrote to me in the Fall of 2010. In the years that followed, we checked in with one another from time-to-time, exchanging holiday greetings, articles we had written, and discussed Qur'anic passages. We talked over numerous book projects, and even had ideas of working on something together. He had begun a book on the Four Worlds as described in Sufism and Kabbalah, and we talked about working together on a book of parallel stories from Hasidism and Sufism. It makes me sad now to think that this will never happen.
He was a remarkable man of wide interests and exceptional abilities, with a still more exceptional heart. A Muslim Sufi pir of the Chishti Order, holder of the keys to the dargah of Khwaja Mu'in ad-Din Chishti in Ajmer, he was also a spiritual activist with a broad experience of many religious traditions and knowledge of nearly seventeen languages (he was learning another for fun when I last spoke to him). He was formerly Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry and faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, living part of the year in Turkey. He was also a friend and close colleague of my own beloved teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, in the last years of his life.
We bonded in the loss of our fathers in the same year—his beloved biological father, and my spiritual father, Reb Zalman, z"l. When Reb Zalman was unconscious in a hospital in Connecticut, Ibrahim Baba wrote to me immediately, offering prayer and support:
Netanelji, i just want to send galaxy-oceans of my love to you at this delicate moment. I am holding you in the Cave of the Heart in my du'a and dhikr. I can only imagine how this must be for you. Please know that I am surrounding you with angelic hosts . . . Love UPON LOVE, Ibrahim Baba.
And when Reb Zalman passed on July 3rd, 2014, among the hundreds of condolences I received, Ibrahim Baba's message to me was one of just two or three that somehow managed to penetrate my grief and bring me actual comfort:
I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult and sad a moment this must be for you. I will not clog up your time or space, but I wanted you to know that I am holding you in my heart at this moment and in the days to come. I am grateful for all that you did for our beloved Rebbe/Shaykh over these many years. I bring you the condolences of our particular Chishti lineage on the loss of your shaykh and pray to support you in the responsibilities that now are with you as his successor. May you be comforted by the One who Comforts all who mourn and who experience tears in the fabric of their existence. Love UPON LOVE, Ibrahim Baba.
He had such a beautiful 'manner,' or adab, as we say in Sufism. His was not the elegant formality of some Sufis, but a genuine, sometimes raucous outpouring of unrestrained love that I appreciated still more. And yet, on another occasion in which I was dealing with a still deeper grief and pain, I remember fondly how he said nothing at all, but simply looked at me tenderly, reached out and held my hand for a long time. I believe I fell in love with him then.
In the Spring of last year, I had the joy of being able to invite both Ibrahim Baba and his beloved and wonderful son, Issa, to come and participate in a special memorial program for Reb Zalman at Naropa University, where I teach. At that time, he dialogued with Rabbi Arthur Green, Tessa Bielecki, and Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown on Reb Zalman's legacy and their own relationships with him. He was a hit with everyone, and the President of Naropa, Chuck Lief, approached me immediately afterward, telling me how much he had enjoyed Ibrahim Baba, suggesting that we needed to find a way to bring him back to Naropa as soon as possible.
Later that night, we met for dinner at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, and afterward went to Reb Zalman's house, where we visited with his widow, Eve, late into the night, eating dessert, and trading stories while sitting at the dinning room table and down in Reb Zalman's library. The next day, he went out to find Reb Zalman's grave in the cemetery, at that time covered in snow, and without a marker. I did my best to try to guide him there over the phone. He found the general area and offered dhikr and d'ua for the peace of Reb Zalman's soul.
Unaware of how sick he was, and very busy, I missed the opportunity to see him while I was in San Francisco this last December. When I realized it, and his disappointment, I regretted it deeply . . . and more so now.
When I heard that he died a few days ago, I was unexpectedly overcome with tears, and felt his loss very keenly. Somehow, this gentle giant and holy man, had meant far more to me than I had known, and I feel, like so many others who experienced his remarkably loving and non-judgmental embrace, that I have lost an irreplaceable friend. However, I am comforted in that I believe he was prepared for this journey, as he wrote to me sometime before, telling me about a near-death experience in 2005-2006:
I was in intensive care in Turkey with double pneumonia, given two weeks to live. It had presented as rapid-onset, as well. In the long hours in the hospital, on respirators, etc, I kept thinking, "But this is not at all how I had imagined learning about dying before you die!" I was expecting Mevlana's poetry, Ney playing, etc.. This was like sliding down metallic ravines. One night, I had an intense death-experience, and the Archangel Israfil told me that I had been brought to the hospital, to the ICU, to the floor where everyone died, to learn about dying before you die, and to do my work of accompanying those who move between the worlds.
That is what he did here—he moved between worlds, making connections for people, helping them through transitions. I suspect it is what he will continue to do on the other side of this life.
The following are the texts of three obituaries or notices of Murshida Rabia Martin’s passing found by Pir Shabda Kahn and sent to Jennifer Alia Wittman and I on Thanksgiving Day.
Mrs. Rabia Martin Rites Tomorrow
Mrs. Rabia Ada Martin, student of eastern philosophy and founder of the Sufi movement in San Francisco, died yesterday at her home, 46 Asbury Street. She was a native San Franciscan.
Funeral services will be held tomorrow at 3 p.m. at Sinai Memorial Chapel, Divisadero Street at Geary. Entombment will follow at the Portals of Eternity.
MARTIN—At rest in this city, Aug. 30, 1947, Rabia Ada, beloved wife of the late David Martin, devoted mother of Etta and Mirza Mehdy, loving grandmother of Martin Mehdy; a native of San Francisco.
“Pir-o-Murshida of the Sufi Order.”
Services Monday 2 p.m., Sinai Memorial Chapel, Divisadero st. at Geary. Entombment, Portals of Eternity.
MARTIN—At rest, in this city, Aug. 30, 1947. Rabia Ada, beloved wife of the late David Martin, devoted mother of Etta and Mirza Mehdy, loving grandmother of Martin Mehdy, “Pir-o-Murshida of the Sufi Order”; a native of San Francisco.
Services Monday 3 p.m., Sinai Memorial Chapel, Divisadero St. at Geary. Entombment, Portals of Eternity.
With the help of Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, as well as the research team (Tawwaba Samia Bloch) working on the biography of Murshid Samuel Lewis, Jennifer Alia Wittman and I were finally able to locate the cemetery where Murshida Rabia Ada Martin (1871-1947), the first American Sufi and murshida, is interred.
Born in San Francisco in 1871 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ada married David Martin at the age of 19. After a period of struggle, she began to study various religions and esoteric paths. In 1911, she attended a talk by the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), then touring the United States for the first time at the Vedanta Society in San Francisco. She knew at once that she had found her path and her teacher. She wrote to him immediately and it was confirmed for him in a vision that she would become his first murid. She then traveled to Seattle where she was initiated and given the name, Rabia. Thereafter, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan guided her on both the inner and outer planes, and eventually recognized her as the first murshida, ‘guide’ or leader, within the newly formed universalist lineage of Inayati Sufism. She established the first American community of Sufis in the Bay Area, and the first khankah or center in Fairfax, California. Among her murids were Murshid Samuel Lewis (1896-1971) and Murshida Vera Corda (1913-2002). She passed away in San Francisco in 1947.
For various reasons, Murshida Rabia Martin’s place in early American Sufism has been, for many years, overshadowed by the success of later teachers, and her burial place forgotten by most Sufis. However, several years ago, while walking and saying dhikr in a park near my home, I had an experience in which I felt Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan was telling me that Murshid Rabia had been too long forgotten, and that it was time to reclaim her for the lineage as a true murshida within it. I felt immediately that I should find her burial place. It was then that I began to look for clues about where she was buried. But, to my surprise, no one seemed to know. All I could find were smallish pieces of biographical information. I was sure, however, that she was somewhere in the Bay Area.
Nevertheless, it was not until this year that I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and look for myself. Jennifer Alia Wittman, the Executive Director of the Inayati Order—North America, and I, both wrote to Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, the seniormost disciples of Murshid Samuel Lewis, as the people most likely people to know where she might be buried. Though neither was aware of the location, they soon put the team researching the biography of Murshid Sam on the case, looking for any information available. After several days and many e-mails back and forth, Pir Shadba sent us the text of an obituary the team had unearthed, telling us that Rabia Ada Martin was interred a mausoleum in the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California.
The Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is a beautiful, sprawling Jewish cemetery with an equally beautiful and majestic mausoleum called, Portals of Eternity. Looking up at the great edifice, we quickly realized that we had no idea where to begin looking. After all, there had to be thousands of burial chambers in the mausoleum. So we decided to go into the offices of the cemetery to talk to the director, who tried to help us locate the exact place of her burial chamber. He took out the old books, but found that the entry was somewhat incomplete. “Unfortunately,” he said, “you’re going to have to search the entire mausoleum. All I can tell you is that her chamber will be at about eye level. And don’t forget to search the lower floor if you don’t find her upstairs.”
We then walked over to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum and up to its beautiful green oxidized copper doors. Green doors was clearly a good Sufi sign I thought. Above the doors was written in English, “Portals of Eternity,” and above that in Hebrew characters, Beit Olam, which literally means, ‘Eternal House.’
We pushed open the heavy green doors and kissed the mezuzah, just inside on the right, as we entered the foyer, on the floor of which was a large magen david, of ‘star of David.’ Directly in front of us was a room where memorial services are held, and to the left and right, hallways leading to the burial chambers.
We had no idea where to start, so we decided to be systematic, carefully going down every passageway together, scanning every wall at roughly eye-level, Alia taking the left side of each hall, and me the right. Back and forth, up and down passageways, we searched through the whole maze of the upper floor. After a half-hour of searching, we’d found nothing. A little discouraged, we then remembered the lower floor and made our way downstairs, again searching the passages systematically.
Finally, about five minutes later, I came upon two burial chambers marked, “Etta M. Mehdy” and “Mirza Mehdy,” and remembered that Etta was the daughter of Rabia Martin, and her husband’s name was Mirza!
Then, sure enough, not far away, at eye-level, as the director had said, was a chamber marked, “David Martin, 1867-1943” and “Rabia Ada Martin, 1871-1947.”
It was a great moment, and an honor, thinking that we may have been the first Inayati Sufis to rediscover and visit her burial place in more than half a century.
Noticing that the flower vases on the burial chamber were empty, we immediately regretted not having brought flowers. Momentarily glancing at someone else's flowers, we both exchanged a knowing look and smiled. We decided to go back to the office to see if we could buy flowers instead.
At the office, the director showed us the flowers available and we decided on white carnations. He asked us who it was we had been searching for and why. We told him who Rabia Martin was, explained a little about Sufism, and told him that other Sufis would likely be coming to visit her burial place now that we had found it. It was a Jewish cemetery, but he was very interested and took down her name, saying that he intended to look her up and add her to list of significant burials in the cemetery.
Heading back to the mausoleum, Alia suggested I photograph the way to Murshida Rabia Martin’s burial chamber so we could describe it to others later. We found our way back to the chamber, filled the vases with water in a nearby utility room, and arranged the flowers in them on the chamber. We then recited the “Toward the One” together and said individual prayers there for the peace of her soul, in gratitude for her work and contributions, and for the reestablishment of her name in the silsila or chain of transmission of Inayati Sufis everywhere.
Directions to the Burial Place of Murshida Rabia Martin
The address of the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is 1299 El Camino Real, Colma, CA 94014-3238.
It’s hours are 8:30AM to 4:00PM, Sunday through Friday. It is a Jewish cemetery and closed on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening), major Jewish Holy Days, as well as secular holidays. Flowers can be purchased in the office.
The cemetery offices are located right at the entrance, and one may park there to walk to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum, easily visible nearby.
Enter the foyer of the mausoleum.
Turn into the hallway to the right.
Walk down to the end of the hallway.
Turn left and descend the stairs to the lower level.
Turn right at Corridor A.
Walk straight to the end, where you will find the burial chamber of Murshida Rabia Martin.
When leaving the cemetery, there is a place to wash and purify your hands, pouring water over your right hand three times, then over your left three times.
"Love is the key to felicity, nor is there a heaven to any who love not. We enter Paradise through its gates only." — Bronson Alcott
After visiting the grave of transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alia and I made our way over to the graves of Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott.
The Alcott family was represented by a more or less uniform row of identical rough and weathered markers with initials on them.
We came to the marker of Louisa May Alcott first, the second daughter of Bronson Alcott and author of Little Women (1868). She actually had two markers—a rough stone marker in front with her initials upon it, and a rectangular marble slab behind it with her name upon it.
The stone marker read “L.M.A. 1832-1888” and had a collection of stones, pine cones, sticks, and a few pennies at its base.
The white marble slab behind it read “Louisa M. Alcott,” and was covered and surrounded by pennies, a few nickels, and stones. The coins were likely to pay the boatman, Kharon, to take her across the River Styx and into the Otherworld (though Kharon’s obol was originally a coin placed in the mouth). In this period, educated Americans were well-versed in Greek mythology and often laid coins upon the eyes of the dead, as was done with Abraham Lincoln. I guessed the custom of leaving coins here was probably following the same reference.
Behind the while marble slab was a small American flag with a star upon it, noting that she was a veteran of the Civil War, serving as a nurse in Washington D.C.
We knelt down to meditate and pray before them, and afterward stood up, taking turns reading various quotes from her:
If I can do no more, let my name stand among those who are willing to bear ridicule and reproach for the truth's sake, and so earn some right to rejoice when the victory is won. — Louisa M. Alcott, Letter to the American Woman Suffrage Association (1885)
Far away in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead. — Louisa M. Alcott, quoted by Elbert Hubbard
Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. — Louisa M. Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy. — Louisa M. Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Next to Louisa May is her youngest sister, May Alcott (1840-1879), a painter and the model for “Amy March” (Amy being an anagram for May) in Little Women. Next to her is Elizabeth Sewell Alcott (1835-1858), the model for “Beth March” (short for Elizabeth) who died at the age of 22. At the moment of her death, it is said that Louisa and her mother saw a ghostly mist rising from the body. At her funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau served as pallbearers. She is buried next to her mother, Abby May Alcott (1800-1877), the model for “Marmie,” a tireless social activist, being both an active suffragette and abolitionist. Anna Bronson Alcott, the model for “Meg” is also apparently buried nearby, but we did not see her grave.
Finally, we came to the grave maker of transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, simply “A.B.A. 1799-1888” on his marker. We again knelt and prayed, and read a quote from Alcott:
Love is the key to felicity, nor is there a heaven to any who love not. We enter Paradise through its gates only. — Bronson Alcott, Table Talk (1877)
"Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
On a trip through Massachusetts today, my friend Alia and I stopped off in Concord to visit some of our literary heroes in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery . . . about as perfect a cemetery as I've ever been through. A moss-covered, root-strewn masterpiece.
Parked at the bottom of Author's Ridge, we walked up the hill seeking the graves of the Transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Ellery Channing. Our plan was to visit the grave of each and then recite aloud from their writings.
The first grave we came to was that of Thoreau, but as there were a few other visitors around, and we wanted some privacy, we decided to come back later. Thoreau deserved better than a hurried visit. He wouldn't have approved. So we headed off to find Emerson first, one of my grandfather's favorite American philosophers.
A little ways around the bend, we came upon the Emerson family graves. Emerson's grave was marked by a huge rose quartz boulder with a green oxidized copper plate on it which read: "Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born in Boston May 25 1803. Died in Concord April 27 1882. The passive master lent his hand to the vast soul that oer him planned."
After looking at the markers for a few minutes, it occurred to us that I should pray for the soul of Emerson, and Alia for his wife, Lidian. We knelt down to meditate and pray . . . which also had the effect of scaring off a few less committed visitors. I smiled and continued to pray.
When we were done, we wanted to leave something at the graves. We hadn't thought to bring anything, so we looked around for something that seemed appropriate. We found a few lovely acorns. Alia deposited her's on top of Lidian's marker. Noticing the pennies people had inserted above the copper plate on Emerson's grave marker, I placed my acorns on the shelf of pennies they had created.
I then read a passage aloud from Emerson's essay, "The Over-Soul" :
[. . .] the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; [. . .] We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul” (1841)
Even more than Emerson, it was Lidian's grave that made a strong impression on Alia. It was a beautiful marker, with lovely sentiments written on both sides. We guessed by one of her children. On the front is written: "Wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Daughter of Charles & Lucy Colton Jacobson. Born September 20th 1802 close by Plymouth Rock, as she loved to remember. Died November 13th 1892 in Concord."
On the back is written: "Lidian Emerson. In her youth an unusual sense of the Divine Presence was granted her and she retained through life the impress of that high Communion. To her children she seemed in her native ascendancy and unquestioning courage a Queen, a Flower in elegance and delicacy. The love and care for her husband, and children was her first earthly interest but with overflowing compassion her heart went out to the slave, the sick and the dumb creation. She remembered them that were in bonds as bound with them."
Got into Louisville, Kentucky this evening to have dinner at the home of Sheikh Kabir and Sheikha Camille Helminski of the Mevlevi Order, founders of the Threshold Society.
Kabir began the study of Sufism with Suleyman Hayati of Konya and was officially recognized as a Mevlevi Sheikh in 1990 by the late Celalettin Celebi, head of the Mevlevi Order. From 1980 until 1999, he was the director of Threshold Books, one of the foremost publishers of Sufi literature. Kabir is the author of two books on Sufism—Living Presence: A Sufi Way of Mindfulness and The Knowing Heart: A Sufi Path of Transformation. Camille has been working within the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism for over thirty years and has helped to increase awareness of the integral contribution of women to the spiritual path of Islam with her book, Women of Sufism: A Hidden Treasure. She was co-director of Threshold Books.
I first met Sheikh Kabir and Sheikha Camille while working for the Spiritual Paths Foundation, arranging InterSpiritual conferences and editing content for its website. It had been a long time, and it was a pleasure to get to know one another again. The following is a great article on Kabir and Camille's work in Forbes Magazine:
Years ago, my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, told me that he had once hiked into the mountains and spray-painted "holy graffiti" on a water reserve tank. He was inspired by the experiments of Dr. Masaru Emoto who claimed that even writing emotionally charged words on a bottle of water changed the structure of the water itself. Words of hate created chaotic structures, and words of love, beautiful patterns. So Reb Zalman took a path into the mountains behind his home in Boulder and hiked up to a large water tank that provided water to the community and spray-painted on it: "Blessings for peace, health, joy, prosperity, and kindness."
Today, a little over a year since his passing, I decided to hike up into the mountains to see if I could find the water tank and see if his holy grafitti still existed. I reached the water tank just after six o'clock in the evening. There was plenty of grafitti on it, but none of it "holy"—at least not on the part of it I could see. I decided to look around the back of it. The ground was wet, so I walked the narrow cement edge around the tank, until finally, I came to the faded black remains of Reb Zalman's grafitti. After some twenty years, and probably more than one paint over, it was still here!
There was no vantage point from which to take a picture of all of it, so I did what I could to capture it in a series of photos.